VON grows Up

Report from Fall VON 2005

By Warren Montgomery



In searching for a way to summarize the Fall VON in 2005, I considered "VON Resurected", for the large number of tech crash casualties that seem to have re-appeared on the exhibits floor (MCI, Global Crossing, Level 3, Stratus, even Sun), and "VON gets Skyped", for the level of interest in Skype and it's immitators as new entrants and new models for communication services, but settled on "VON grows up" based on the fact that my overall impression was that VON has gone from a largely underground conference of business and technical people talking about radical change, to a premier telecommunications conference where major suppliers and customers meet to discuss  the normal evolution of an industry.  Unlike the irrational exuberance shown in 2000-2001 and anti ma bell rhetoric that dominated the early days of VON, this one featured mainly sober discussions of how companies react to the changes enabled and forced by new technologies.   The show floor and talks didn't present radical new solutions or really any surprises, but incremental improvement and recap on what has been seen already.  According to Pulver the attendance was a record.  Pre-show information indicated 5,000 registered for the full conference and 3,000 for the exhibits, certainly a large showing.  Part of my view may be biased because this time I spent all of my time in the exhibit hall and in side meetings, not attending talks but getting reports second hand from those who did.   The sobering impact of Hurricane Katrina was also much on people's mindes at the show and clearly effected some of the discussions.

Some key themes

Again based mostly on what I saw in the exhibits hall and heard elsewhere here are what I heard as the major themes


The 3GPP IP Multi-media subsystem was clearly the buzzword of the hour on the exhibits floor.  It also appeared in many talks and dominated a couple of sessions.  Nearly every product exhibited was shown in an IMS architecture.   This is perhaps no surprise, because IMS is clearly the architecture of choice for the major wireless and wireline carriers who buy all that equipment shown on the floor, but it's a curious appearance in VON because:
In my view IMS has reached the peak of the "hype" curve -- not that there isn't substance behind it, but it has become compelling to show how products relate to IMS that many people talk about it without having a sound understanding of what it will and wont do.

Basic POTS

Seems odd to talk about Plain Old Telephone Service being hot, but perhaps I should explain what I mean.  As in the Spring 2005 VON, the interest of just about all the carriers serving the residential market is dominated by plain old service concerns.  The business model is plug your plain old phone into a VoIP network and use it just like you used to and get all the same services you got (including 911) only cheaper by the bundle.  As I said 6 months ago that's not an exciting proposition for the industry, but it's understandable particularly in light of recent rulings on 911 (i.e. requiring it of alternative carriers who have not asked customers to sign a specific disclosure that the phone won't provide that service), and by the fierce competition for lines between the cable and phone industry.  I still wonder, though, whether VoIP is a great technology for this market, given that circuit technology which fits this need is so widely available and so far at least there seems little interest in exploiting any of the wonderful things IP voice transport might enable. 

Skype and Skype look alikes

Skype was much more visible than 6 months ago.  Depending on who you are in the industry, Skype is either freind or foe, and at least one booth proudly proclaimed the ability block Skype.  Some interesting things about Skype include:
In addition to free client to client telephony and chat, Skype does offer an optional minutes based calling capability that is cheap and easy to use.  It's not going to do anything but grow.

Fixed/Mobile Convergence

Lots of discussion and demonstration of various types of Fixed/Mobile convergence solutions.  Of course the problem is everyone means something different by this, but what many now mean is the ability to use a single phone either as a mobile phone or as a Wifi or Wimax based VoIP client, and the ability to seamless roam (including moving calls) across both.  Other definitions include mobile to cordless roaming or multiple phones with the same identity (number) and services.  One thing I wonder is what the ultimate penetration of Wifi capable phones will be, since it does require a special phone, and the benefit to the user seems limited to whatever savings they realize by sending some of their calls via WiFi  and avoiding using mobile plan minutes, which may not be worth as much to consumers as video, cameras, and MP3 capabilities in phones with limited power and processing.

Hybrid networks?

I put this as tentative because nobody likes to talk about the "legacy network" at VON, but in fact there were seveal discussions around how to evolve to VoIP in a world where a lot of the endpoints and some of the network technology will stay circuit for wome time.  If nothing else the various technologies to plug analog POTS phones into a VoIP network fall in this class, but a more common problem is that of  a business with an investment in circuit phones wanting to cap it and grow new phones in VoIP, wanting common features across both technologies and not willing to make the investment to replace the existing phones and engineer and/or install IP networking capable of carrying VoIP in those facilities. 

Asterisk and AIX

Asterisk is an open source IP PBX and AIX is the protocol it uses internally.  I first learned about Asterisk less than a year ago and spent some time exploring the project, which had a modest booth, at the Spring VON.  In Fall VON they had large booth in the most prominent location on the floor, showing a whole set of companies selling products built around the technology.  Some clearly see this as the Linux of the communication world.  I would say based on what I've seen it's not yet clear that it will achieve the same state, but it's alive and well and becoming commercial.

Observations from the Exhibits

The overall observation I'd make on the exhibits is that there wasn't much really new.  That's not necessarily bad, but is another sign of "VON grows up".  As noted above, there were a lot of companies that seemed to be back from the dead.  Stratus computer, one of the poineers of fault tolerant computing that was swalloed by Ascend and then divested as Lucent acquired Ascend, showed up selling a new fault resiliant Intel/Linux architecture and their SS7 networking.  Level3, Global Crossing, and MCI all showed up selling VoIP based services.  Excel switching showed up with a large booth (and recently acquired NMS in the booth next to it.  Lucent and Avaya were both there.  Lucent was showing IMS based services and other products and services related to convergence.  Nortel and Alcatel also had large booths.  If there was a surprise, it was the rise of IT -- IBM, Microsoft, and even Sun had booths in the front row and lots of interest.  IT companies and integrators are playing a big role in convergence in carrier networks.  One surprise was that I do not recall seeing a Cisco booth.  Cisco sent plenty of people, but I don't remember a booth.  maybe I just didn't see it.

Traffic through the exhibit area was vigorous, but still dominated by vendors and consultants rather than carriers.  (At least a couple made the comment that VON still means "Vendors on the Net".  Overall it had almost the feel of the old Supercomm show, and no doubt the demise of Supercomm and other "conventional" shows has driven some of that traffic to VON.

Other Stuff

Here are some other observations of my week at VON

Boston and the big dig. 

This was my first extended stay in Boston, a city I lived in for 5 years, since the $15 Billion dollar central artery highway replacement project has been virtually finished.  Unfortunately, I can't say the money has done much for Boston's traffic problems.  It has eliminated the eyesore elevated roadway and eased congestion to/from the airport a bit, but it has also left mazes of elevated ramps just outside of the city (south boston, the airport area, and cambridge/charlestown), and seems far more confusing than the old roadway.  You could get onto the old central artery just about anywhere in the waterfront area and exit anywhere you like, but with the new road we found you often faced long routes over local streets to get to an entrance only to discover you were stuck in a feeder lane where you couldn't then exit where you wanted to go.

VON was held at the brand new Boston convention center.  This is a large facility in the old area of warves and warehouses across the bay from the airport and south of downtown, where the old commwealth pier was and where some of the venerable seafood restaurants are (Anthony's and Jimmy's).  The convention center is very nice, and well served by the "silver line" transit (actually a glorified bus, not a train like the other MBTA "lines":) making it a convenient access from downtown or the airport.  There are no hotels and few restaurants in the area yet though making it a bit inconvenient.  We did visit one of my old haunts, the "noname" fish restaurant one night, and I was in fact quite disappointed.  The noname started as a shack on the docks where Boston's commecial fishing boats unloaded, and served basic ultra-fresh fish simply prepared to people who sat at picnic tables or on the dock.  What was lacking in atmosphere or convenience (cash only, no liquor) was more than made up for by the fish.  The restaurant is now in a building and more conventional, and the fish wasn't nearly as good.  Maybe we just had a bad day.

The Pulver Party

A major feature of all VONs is the party, and this one followed the usual formula -- a big name band in an old theater with good eats and drinks.  The headline band, Huey Lewis and the News, was great, much better live than recorded in my view, again fitting the "VON grows up" theme more than some of those cutting edge "alternative" bands he had in the boom days.  They put on a great show and not only let Jeff and his friends sing "Mustang Sally", but really seemed to enjoy it.  The atmosphere was quite different as well, in that most of those early shows were basic a gathering of greying geeks more interested in talking shop than in the music, but this one looked more like saturday night at a club -- almost as many women as men and everyone more into the music than VoIP.  As usual it went on long enough that I felt sorry for anyone with a Thursday AM talk!